The Significance of Gender Roles in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun
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Gender roles are undeniably a fundamental topic of critique in literature, particularly since expected gender roles have evolved in recent years. More importantly, the transcendence of these gender expectations indicates the possibility for transformation and increasing liberation in society. History explores many different stages for the sexes and their respective roles, from traditional anti-feminist times in which certain roles were strictly enforced, to more modern beliefs entailing free will and a lack of restrictions. In spite of this progress, there are always those who expedite the process while there are others that hinder development from occurring, even when it is necessary. Literary works in particular serve as a showcase…show more content…
In fact, in a crucial commentary Margaret Wilkerson notes that “the timelessness of the play has not diminished” (Wilkerson 442) due to the way in which it addresses certain key issues of humanity. In this play, the young woman, Beneatha, is relentless in her efforts to attend medical school and become a successful doctor. Not only is she crossing preconceived gender boundaries by desiring a respectable occupation, but Beneatha is also rising above expectations of her race by her insistence on acquiring a higher education even during a time of unequal rights. With special regards to the expected compliance and obedience from the women in these plays, gender roles are less predictable since the plays involve characters that rise above social gender boundaries. This is achieved by acting out of the ordinary and ultimately revealing the truth that there are always those who are ahead of their time and that exceptions exist even within the frame of gender roles. In specific regards to obedience, Katherine’s forthright nature and defiance of her father clearly put her ahead of her time in The Taming of the Shrew. Since women were supposed to act subservient and dutiful to their male counterparts such as their fathers and husbands, Katherine undermines this belief by simply being unpleasant. Not only is Katherine referred to as “curst Katherine”(1.2.185), but she is also the
Issues related to gender are hugely important in this play, which centers around Petruchio "taming" Katherine and forcing her into the traditionally submissive role of a wife. The play is filled with characters who fit and don't fit traditional gender roles—particularly the idea of the male as dominant and the female as submissive. The quiet, mild-mannered Bianca, for example, plays the traditional role of a woman well, while Katherine rebels against this stereotype with her boisterousness and refusal to be ordered around by a man. In the last scene of the play, Petruchio, Baptista, Hortensio, and Lucentio tease each other over who is ruled by his wife and is thus less of a man. Perhaps with the exception of Petruchio, these men do not live up to the masculine ideal of a commanding husband in control of his wife, just as Bianca and the widow Hortensio marries turn out not to be the epitomes of female obedience their husbands may have thought they were.
While both men and women in the play don't always behave in accordance with traditional gender roles, it is the women—and particularly Katherine—who are punished for such behavior. Katherine's stubbornness and strong will cause her to be denigrated, insulted, and abused throughout the play. She is less highly valued as a potential wife than her sister and humiliated by various male characters, by none more than her own husband Petruchio. This would seem to make Shakespeare's play rather sexist and misogynistic, especially as it showcases Petruchio's abusing Katherine for comedic value. But, although the play contains much misogyny on-stage, it can also be seen as exposing some of the fallacies of traditional, oppressive gender roles. For one thing, with all of the disguises and deceptive performances in the comedy, it is somewhat unclear whether Katherine is really tamed by Petruchio, or whether she is simply pretending to be obedient to him. It is even possible that he and she are pretending together, in order to surprise Baptista and the other characters. Different productions of The Taming of the Shrew may choose to interpret this ambiguity differently, but with the play's emphasis on performance and swapping roles (more on this below), Shakespeare may be seen as suggesting that gender roles are just that: roles to be played, rather than natural, true identities. This is furthered by the cross-dressing servant in the beginning of the play who convinces Christopher Sly that he is his wife, and perhaps by the fact that in Shakespeare's day, women's parts on the stage were played by young male actors.
In the end, the fact that the play portrays a heavy dose of misogyny is unavoidable, and much of Shakespeare's audience would doubtlessly have laughed at the sexist joking and slapstick abuse in the comedy. Whether Shakespeare would have shared in this reaction, or whether the play endorses this misogyny is somewhat more up for debate, but in any case reading the play offers just as much of an opportunity to critique misogyny and traditional gender roles as it does to reinforce them.